PokerStars paid a company to examine more than 100 million cash game hands played on its website in December 2008 and found that only about 25 percent of all hands actually made it to showdown. That means for every four hands, three are won when one player bets and everybody else folds. Clearly, then, betting is an important component to poker, perhaps more so than the cards you are dealt (this is the quintessential skill vs. luck debate).
There are really just two reasons for betting - you are betting for value (i.e. you think you have the best hand and are trying to build up the pot and/or take down the hand right then) or you are bluffing (you don't have the best hand, and the only way to win is to get your opponents to fold).
If you put chips into the pot for any other reason (I'm just keeping you honest, or I just wanted to see what you had) then you are wasting chips.
Anytime you put chips into the pot in poker, you are betting, whether you are calling an existing bet, opening the betting or raising. There is a big difference between calling (flatting) and raising, however.
When you call an existing bet, you are not putting any pressure on your opponent. Remember that three-fourths of all hands are won when somebody bets and everybody else folds. Nobody folds just because you called their bet. When you are the aggressor by either making the initial bet or raising the existing bet you are forcing your opponent to react and giving yourself a chance to win the pot before it gets to showdown.
Determining your opponents' relative playing abilities is key in setting your betting style. It is much easier to bluff a good player than it is a bad player, so if you find yourself up against several inexperienced players, it is probably a good idea to shelve any bluffing tactics. Instead, these are the players you should be value betting against constantly, because they are not going to fold whenever they connect with a flop or get a pocket pair. Keep the pressure on these players all the way to the river if you feel you have the best hand. They will keep calling well beyond when they should fold and give you a big payday.
If your opponents are tight, then bluffing can be more profitable because they are more likely to lay down a decent hand against an aggressive player.
Similarly, if you are up against aggressive players and you know there is a really good likelihood that a player will re-raise your bet, you should take that into consideration before putting any chips into the pot. If you decide you are going to fold if he re-raises you, then your best bet would be just to check.
Your table image will also play a role in the effectiveness of your betting. If you are a loose player who sees just about every flop and almost always puts out a continuation bet after the flop, then expect to see a lot more players willing to either call your bet or re-raise you.
If you are a tight player who folds frequently to bets and re-raises, then expect savvy players to bet into you more often. This could work to your advantage, of course, when you have a really strong hand, but it also will force you to make a lot of decisions and it will increase the importance of connecting with the flop. This style will cause other players to respect your raises more, but that means you may have difficulty building up substantial pots because players are folding to your bets.
When betting, you generally do not want to send out any signs of weakness, but one common mistake that a lot of players make is to reduce the size of their bets in the later rounds (turn and/or river). Let's say in a $1/$2 cash game, you raise to $7 pre-flop, and then bet $10 after the flop. The turn comes up and all of the sudden you are not so sure you have the best hand any more. If you are not willing to bet at least what you bet in the last round ($10), then you should probably just check. If you don't think you have the best hand, and you're not willing to bluff, don't put any chips into the pot.
Lots of players will try to make a defensive bet, say $5, in an effort to keep their opponent from betting more than that. Reducing the size of a bet from one round to the next is a sure sign of weakness, and a good player will pounce on that decision and re-raise you, meaning you either just threw away the $5 you bet (because you are going to fold) or you will put more money into the pot than you really wanted (because you now feel compelled to call). Your bets should at least stay consistent from street to street and will ideally increase with each round.
Let's say you are in a multi-table tournament and get A-J in middle position. The Big Blind is 200 and it folds to you. What size bet should you make? Most standard opening bets fall somewhere in the 2.5 - 3 times the big blind range (500-600). Putting in a pre-flop raise somewhere in this range should be enough to scare away all the trash-hand players and boil the action down to one or two others post flop.
Let's say you bet 550, the button and the Big Blind call and the flop comes up A-Q-4 rainbow. At this point, you can be reasonably confident you are ahead.
There are just a few hands that beat you (pocket aces, pocket queens, pocket 4s, A-K, A-Q, A-4 and Q-4). It is probably safe to assume that pocket aces, pocket queens, A-K and A-Q would have re-raised you preflop (at least they should have with the presence of more than one other player still active in the pot). It's probably also safe to assume that Q-4 would have folded pre-flop, leaving you only to worry about pocket 4s and A-4. The Big Blind is first to act and checks to you, leaving you the decision to either check or bet.
This would be a good time for a continuation bet, for several reasons. First, you have a strong hand and are likely ahead. When you think you are ahead in a hand, you really don't want to give your opponents a chance to get a free card and catch up. Secondly, one of the two players may have an ace with a lower kicker and might pay off your bet. Thirdly, there are plenty of chips already in the pot (1,750 - or nine big blinds). And lastly, your opponents are already inclined to believe you have a good hand because of your pre-flop raise. A good follow-up bet of about half the pot size (850) will only confirm to them that you have an ace and will most likely scare them away.
You can't always rely on having the best cards to win. That's why learning to bluff is so important. For more detailed information on the art of the bluff, read the CardsChat strategy article on bluffing. But a few rules to remember for betting as a bluff are:
Figure out when your opponents are not particularly strong. This will make them more susceptible to a bluff. Look for signs of weakness and press the action.
Learn to play the board. You may have raised pre-flop with K-Q suited and then completely whiffed on the A-7-5 flop. However, your opponents are going to be inclined to believe you have a strong hand, and if you follow up with a continuation bet, you may scare them off, even good players with middle pocket pairs.
In multi-table tourneys, don't try to bluff too much in the early stages, when the blinds are small and the pots are generally small as well. Use the early part of the tournament to build up your chip stack so you can afford to take a stab or two at a bluff in the later rounds.
You also need to make sure your bets tell a consistent story. If you limp into a pot pre-flop, check-call the flop, check the turn and then all of sudden make a huge bet on the river, your story doesn't make a lot of sense. The size of the bet might scare people away, but the inconsistent manner in which you played the hand might also give away that you are bluffing. Remember that when you are bluffing, you don't want to give people a reason to call you.
Your betting action is how you communicate with the other players at the table the relative strength (or weakness) of your hand. A strong, decisive bet indicates a strong hand, or at least that is what you want your opponents to believe. Be ready and when it is your turn to act, announce your action immediately and put the chips in the pot in one clean motion.
Calling or checking, hesitation, fumbling with your chips, indecision, re-checking your cards several times - all of these actions indicate weakness. That's why it is so important to have a plan and execute that plan as soon as it is your turn to act.